30 Teams, (At Least) 30 Thoughts: Buffalo Sabres

Here are my random thoughts on the Buffalo Sabres one-quarter of the way through the NHL season. To read my thoughts on the Anaheim Ducks and Boston Bruins, click here and here.

Thomas Vanek is an elite player, one of the very best in the NHL. But in past years he has seemed to fade as the season goes along, and I’m not sure why. Is it a lack of desire, motivation? If so, that’s a problem. If it’s health or something else, that’s more forgivable, but whatever it is, the Sabres need Vanek to avoid the issue this time around if they want to make the playoffs.

Regardless of the reasons for his past declines in production as seasons have gone on, there are few in the NHL who can match Vanek’s combination of size, skill, hockey sense, vision, and finishing ability, provided he keeps playing his hardest and stays healthy. Because while I do not know which of the two it is, I do believe that at least one of those issues has hindered his game in the past.

Steve Ott is not a top-six forward, and Lindy Ruff needs to stop screwing up his lines, which, in turn, screws up his team.

What is Steve Ott, you ask, if not a top-six forward? Ott is a unique, valuable player, a consistent two-way number-seven forward with size, muscle, and a mean-streak. But he’s not a top-six forward in terms of meeting the offensive requirements that the label “top-six forward” entails.

You know who is a top-six forward? Marcus Foligno. This guy is a player, I’m telling you. Unfortunately, he has been relegated to the third line for much of the season and hasn’t been given enough opportunities to flourish offensively by Lindy Ruff, while Steve Ott has gotten to play on the second-line with Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis in Foligno’s stead, as well as the power-play.

Unfortunately for the Sabres, that line of Steve Ott – Tyler Ennis – Drew Stafford has really struggled. Drew Stafford doesn’t even have a goal this season. But guess what line was on absolute fire for the Sabres the second half of last season, back when things weren’t all complicated because of Steve Ott’s addition? Marcus Foligno – Tyler Ennis – Drew Stafford.

I see a trend emerging.

Lindy Ruff needs to stick with lines that have already proven themselves to be effective over significant periods of time in the recent past instead of changing them every two seconds. If there’s only room for one between Steve Ott and Marcus Foligno, it should be Foligno getting the offensive opportunities, such as the second-line left-wing spot alongside Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford and top-six power-play time as well, not Ott.

Interestingly enough, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek had a fantastic start to last season for Ruff as well before he separated them at times, and then their production started to fade. So this problem extends beyond the Foligno vs Ott dilemma; Ruff simply messes with his lines way too often.

But, you say, there’s a reason a coach would do that; it’s because he’s looking for great new combinations! And yes, that would the logical reason for mixing lines. The problem with Ruff is that he has found great combinations, but every time he finds one, he eventually breaks it up, which completely defeats the purpose of putting all his players through the trouble of mixing up their lines in the first place and ruining their chemistry and consistency.

Case in point, it took less than a game this season for Ruff to break up the Foligno – Ennis – Stafford line that performed so exceedingly for him last season.

Likewise, it’s been proven over and over that Vanek and Pominville play well together, yet he broke them up at times last season, too. Derek Roy had also played very well with those two in the past, yet Ruff refused to play Roy on that line all of last season, resulting in his awful year and trade for, you guessed it, Steve Ott.

So, you ask, are am I saying that Ruff misused Derek Roy, which led to him being shipped off for Steve Ott, and now he’s misusing Steve Ott? Yep. Although it looks like maybe Ruff has improved a bit the last couple games in slotting his forwards correctly.

Still, none of this should be that complicated. The top two lines should usually be Vanek – Hodgson – Pominville, Foligno – Ennis – Stafford (this is leaving out Luke Adam since I have no idea what happened to him after playing well for a good part of last season in the Sabres top-six), as well as the top two power-play units. And that even leaves a third line of Steve Ott – Mikael Grigorenko – Johan Hecht, which is actually really good, too. One of the better size and skill mixes of any third line in the league. Nathan Gerbe could swap with Hecht at times as well to add more speed.

Moral of the story: the Buffalo Sabres have some very good top-level forwards, as well as some good forward depth throughout their top-six and even top-nine. Lindy Ruff just needs to use these players properly, and the Buffalo Sabres should have one of the better, more consistent offenses in the Eastern Conference.

Written by Shark Circle